Was Stalin Aware of Romeo and Juliet?

I’m reading a new novel by Almudena Grandes, one of Spain’s leading authors. At the very beginning of the book, the narrator tells a story in which Stalin makes a reference to Romeo and Juliet. “This must mean the story is apocryphal,” the narrator immediately concludes. “Stalin couldn’t have been aware of Romeo and Juliet because his Russian was never very good.”

It is true that Stalin spoke Russian with a strong accent his entire life. This is not surprising since it wasn’t his language. However, poor knowledge of Russian has never prevented anybody from being familiar with works of Shakespeare. I have a strong suspicion that Shakespeare himself was not a fluent speaker of this language.

At the same time, having an accent, even a strong one, in no way precludes very high proficiency in reading in a language. Stalin was not only a poet, who in his youth managed to get published and even included into an anthology of best poetry in Georgia, he was also an avid reader, and not only in Georgian but also in Russian. His party nickname was “Koba”, after a character in a novel. After his death, Stalin’s huge personal library was recovered and is now available to researchers. Many a learned volume has been written on the extensive notes Stalin left in the margins of his favorite books.

It is important to remember, that even at the height of purges, Stalin almost never killed writers who wrote in Russian. He exterminated every single Ukrainian writer of note but Russian-language authors were cherished by him. Osip Mandelshtam, the greatest poet of the twentieth century in Russia (in my opinion) and a Jew, and Isaak Babel, another Soviet Jewish writer, were the only ones killed by Stalin. Mandelshtam wrote a poem criticizing Stalin and making fun of his appearance, and Babel had an affair with the wife of the NKVD chief. Save from these two egregious cases, Stalin protected Russian-speaking writers.

Stalin’s favorite writer, Mikhail Bulgakov (not a Jew and actually a notorious anti-Semite), wrote books that were very critical of the Soviet Union and also very complex in a truly Modernist way. Stalin loved Bulgakov’s work so much that he attended the performance of one of his plays dozens of times. He also protected Boris Pasternak (who was actually one of the greatest translators of Shakespeare into Russian. And a Jew). Pasternak’s name was put on a list of people to be arrested and Stalin himself crossed him off the list.

There is ample evidence that Stalin read very carefully every single work of literature that was nominated for the highest literary prize in Soviet Union, a prize that bore Stalin’s own name.

I’m not writing this to defend Stalin in any way. He was a bloody dictator and a horrible person. An ignoramus, however, he was not. He was an autodidact from an indigent family who spoke with an accent. None of these things, however, suggest that he was stupid or illiterate.

13 thoughts on “Was Stalin Aware of Romeo and Juliet?”

      1. This is really funny. We — those of us that noticed State propaganda, that is — grew up thinking of Stalin as a thoughtful, literary man, and not a fascist dictator. Well, we thought of as a thoughtful, literary man who was *forced* to become a dictator.

        Funny how one’s culture influences one’s opinion of people.

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        1. True. Often, it’s either Stalin as a stick figure who is inhuman and symbolizes every evil or Stalin as an angel sent directly by a weird Orthodox God. Of course, the truth is always located far away from the two extremes.

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  1. In case you like it:

    Epitaph on a tyrant

    Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
    And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
    He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
    And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
    When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
    And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

    — W H Auden

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  2. Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” was produced in 1935. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LSxpxjMQ9c

    Surely, Stalin was aware of the play. The mid 30s were a turbulent time in the USSR. All self-described Marxist-Leninists knew that Hitler would be pulling a Napoleonic invasion of the country in the 40s. The question was which year?

    Fidel Castro is also quite aware of literary doings. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has often given Castro his own works for reading and dialogue before publishing.

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    1. It’s great to have such intelligent, well-informed readers! Stalin was, indeed, very attentive to Prokofiev and made huge efforts to retain him for the regime. He was very successful in that.

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  3. It’s an irony of history that Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day. With all the hubub about Stalin, hardly anyone noticed that the one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century had passed away.

    For those who haven’t seen it, “Alexander Nevsky” was an Eisenstein/Prokofiev collaboration made more or less as a warning to Hitler’s Tuetonic Knights about the impending war on Soviet soil. It came out in 1938. Here’s a bit of it:

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